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Five Excellent New Wave Films from Around the World

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In the late 1950s/early '60s, a generation of young French filmmakers began making daring and innovative movies that represented a decisive break from French cinema. These films — such as The 400 Blows and Breathless, now established classics — constituted a "New Wave" of French cinema. In subsequent years, other countries experienced their own new waves that were unique, yet were also similar in the profound change they brought to their cinema.

Let's take a look at five innovative films, and the respective new waves that they represent.

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Title: Jules and Jim (1962).

Plot: In glittering pre-WWI France, young Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and young Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) strike up a passionate friendship, drawn together by their love of art and women. But when they meet the bubbly Catherine (Jeanne Moreau in her signature role), who draws the affections of both men, their relationship will be tested as never before (the outbreak of WWI, which finds the men as soldiers on opposing sides, doesn't help matters). François Truffaut's endlessly inventive Jules and Jim marks the apotheosis of the French New Wave, and would stand as a personal best for the filmmaker.

Historical context: The French New Wave — the new wave to which all other new waves hearken back — can trace its origins to the opinionated film critics on the staff of Cahiers du Cinéma of the 1950s. These critics — including Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer — found postwar French cinema to be stale and conventional. Far more attractive to them were the American genre films of John Ford and Nicholas Ray, Italian neorealism, and the socially engaged French cinema of the 1930s. Drawing on their rich knowledge of film history, these critics set out in the late '50s to make a new kind of French film, one that was playful and allusive, dispensing with old cinematic conventions while forging new ones (including the jump cut, the still-frame montage). The French New Wave was so successful that people tend to not notice its innovations when watching films from the era, as they have become part of the standard film grammar that we still employ today.

Where it's streaming: Hulu, Amazon.

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Title: Pigs and Battleships (1961).

Plot: In the bustling Japanese port city of Yokosuka, impoverished and dysfunctional young lovers Kinta and Haruko face an uncertain future. While Haruko ekes out a living as a bar hostess, Kinta thinks he can strike it big by working his way up in Yokosuka's criminal underworld, which just happens to be on the verge of civil war. Things take a turn for the grotesque when Kinta's gang try to set up shop as pig farmers (the town is awash with American sailors, and Americans eat a lot of pork), hence the titular pigs and battleships. Incompetent as a pig farmer, Kinta's life spirals out of control in this kaleidoscopic exploration of crime, poverty, and pig cultivation.

Historical context: The Japanese New Wave (Nuberu Bagu) may have taken its name from the contemporary French movement, but the crop of brilliant young Japanese filmmakers who burst onto the scene circa-1960 swiftly charted their own paths. The Nuberu Bagu produced auteurs like Nagisa Oshima, a left-wing radical who professed to hate all previous Japanese cinema; Seijun Suzuki, a director of psychedelic gangster films whose production company would later fire him for directing movies that "don't make money and don't make sense"; and Shohei Imamura, director of Pigs and Battleships, whose interest in class issues and sex would lead to grimy, nightmarish epics like Intentions of Murder (1964) and The Pornographers (1966).

These and like-minded Japanese filmmakers made vibrant and revolutionary films throughout the '60s until right around 1970, when economic mismanagement and cultural change brought about the near-collapse of the Japanese film industry. Although their output diminished, many of the New Wave filmmakers continued to make strong contributions to world cinema well into the 2000s.

Where it's streaming: Hulu.

Title: Closely Watched Trains (1966).

Plot: At the height of WWII, naïve young Czech Miloš is embarking on the perfect career: train-station guard. He will have nothing to do all day but sit and watch the trains go by. At his new post, he meets ladies man Hubi?ka, and the pretty young Máša, whose enticements draw him into the adult world of sex. But what could have been an erotic idyll for Miloš is complicated by Hubi?ka's involvement with the Czech resistance to the Nazi occupation. Soon Miloš will find that there is far more at stake in life than overcoming premature ejaculation, and that comedy can turn to horror with the flick of a railroad switch.

Historical context: The Czech New Wave, which begins circa-1963, was defined by a sense of the comic and the absurd, which is unique in the New Waves of the era. Drawing on the whimsical literary output of Bohumil Hrabal and the legacy of surrealism just as much as the youthful exuberance of the French New Wave, Czech filmmakers of the mid-1960s produced playful and increasingly subversive films that benefited from a period of liberalization in Czechoslovak communism.

The movement brought us compassionate films about youth (Miloš Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1965), Ji?í Menzel's Closely Watched Trains), the psychedelic feminist films of V?ra Chytilová, and grotesque political dramas like Jan N?mec's A Report on the Party and Guests (1966). Whereas some New Waves have no definitive end point, the Czech New Wave was more or less suppressed in 1968 with the Warsaw Pact Invasion that brought an end to the liberalization of the mid-'60s. There are a few noteworthy, New Wave-style films post-1968, but this rich flowering of Czech cinema was largely over by then.

Where it's streaming: Hulu.

Title: The Cow (1969).

Plot: Iranian villager Hassan is the proud owner of a very special cow. As the only milk-cow in the village, Hassan's fellow villagers are dependent on him for milk. This gives Hassan what is, in his mind, a privileged place in society, and his identity is deeply bound to his cow. Then one day the cow up and dies. What follows is a visceral depiction of Hassan's Nebuchadnezzar-style mental disintegration in the face of this catastrophe.

Historical context: Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow is often regarded as the inaugural film of the Iranian New Wave, and is a key film in Iranian cinema more broadly, as it was Ayatollah Khomeini's fondness for The Cow which allegedly convinced him not to ban cinema entirely during the Islamic Revolution. Some of the defining characteristics of Iranian New Wave cinema are a rigorous sense of realism, an engagement with social issues, and the use of non-professional actors. In these qualities, there is a clear influence of Italian neorealism.

As the Iranian New Wave evolved — and it continues to evolve, as it never really ended — it broke with the neorealists through the use of meta-cinematic techniques; classic examples would be Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherry (1997), in which the camera zooms out to show us the film crew, or Jafar Panahi's The Mirror (1997), in which a child actress's refusal to cooperate is incorporated into the film. The Iranian New Wave remains one of the most vital forces in world cinema today.

Where it's streaming: Amazon, Fandor.

Title: Five Easy Pieces (1970).

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Plot: Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), an oil-rig worker in California, does not have much going for him. He drifts aimlessly through life, getting drunk and pursuing a series of one-night stands. But Bobby wasn't always like this. In the past, which he tries to suppress, he was a classically trained pianist from a well-to-do Washington-state family from which he's become estranged. When Bobby learns that his father is dying, he and pregnant girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) begin a grim road trip up the coast to his father and into the past.

Historical context: The new-wave ethos that revolutionized world cinema in the '60s certainly took its sweet time coming to America. In 1963, Hollywood was still producing garish, misguided epics like Cleopatra. But by the late '60s, American studios began to get the message, and with the advent of movies like Easy Rider (1969) and Harold and Maude (1971), the New Hollywood (sometimes referred to as the American New Wave) was in full swing. This was not so much a revolt against the establishment (as had been the case in France and Japan), but rather the establishment appropriating some of the trends embodied by the counterculture.

This isn't to say that it didn't represent a welcome improvement in American cinema. American movies of this period lost the polish of old-school Hollywood; they became gritty and willing to engage with heavier subject matter that would have been censored just a few years before. Perhaps, like the French New Wave before it, the New Hollywood so successfully assimilated the new techniques that they became part of the mainstream.

Where it's streaming: Amazon.